Some lovely day, seven hundred and thirty or more years ago, sweet and heart came together.
Both were words that had been in English since before English was English, with roots far, far back, and cousins from India to Iceland.
Sweet, a word everyone loves, had grown from a Proto-Indo-European root that also became Latin suavis ‘sweet, delicious’, now bequeathed to us as suave, and Greek ἡδύς (hédus) ‘pleasant’, now at our masquerade ball as part of hedonistic, along with a swath of other words meaning ‘sweet’: स्वादु (svādú), soave, süß, zoet, søt, sætur…
Heart, which beats blood but also pumps emotions, had a similar history at the heart of languages strung between Kangchenjunga and Snæfellsjökull, from हृद् (hṛ́d) through καρδία (kardia, whence cardiac) and Latin cor (whence courage) and cœur and serce (whence serduszka as in “Dwa Serduszka Cztery Oczy”) and Herz (even if your heart beats at less than 1 hertz, it is still dein ganzes Herz) and hart and hjarta…
As when two famous and glamorous people are in the same restaurant at the same time, it was inevitable that these two would soon enough spot each other and come together. And by 1290 they had, as swete heorte, which is how they looked when they were young and wild and free. For Chaucer, the happy couple were swete herte; for Shakespeare, sweet-heart. And for Dashiell Hammett, sweetheart.
Like any famous couple, they show up in many places, even where you don’t expect them. You can buy small sugar hearts called Sweethearts, each bearing a message (like a confectionary fortune cookie); you can make a sweetheart deal if you’re negotiating a contract. They also have their imitators, such as the band Streetheart. And of course “sweetness heart”:
But you want your true sweetheart, especially at Valentine’s (which, as a celebration of romance, is newer than this word, sweetheart). And you will want your sweetheart to let you call them sweetheart:
That was a hit in 1911, and it kept coming back…
Sweet and heart, together once and forever in English, though their cousins in other languages have never paired off in parallel.
Not all sweethearts are forever, though we can hope. But all sweethearts are like sugar in the spirit, a treat to enjoy, even if just for one day, as Charlotte Mew wrote a century ago:
Fin de Fête
by Charlotte Mew
Sweetheart, for such a day
One mustn’t grudge the score;
Here, then, it’s all to pay,
It’s Good-night at the door.
Good-night and good dreams to you,—
Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
And how the birds came down and covered them with leaves?
So you and I should have slept,—But now,
Oh, what a lonely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
In the moonlight over your bed.